Fund the Children, Not the Schools

5-Minute Videos  ⋅  Corey DeAngelis  ⋅  

Why is it that parents have so little control over where their children go to school? Unless you homeschool or send your child to a private school, you’re at the mercy of the government and the Teachers Unions. That needs to change. Corey DeAngelis, National Director of Research at the American Federation for Children, explains why.

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Fund the children, not the schools. 

If ever an idea’s time has come, it’s this one. 

What does it mean?

It means parents decide where to send their children to school, not the government. 

A radical idea? 

Hardly. 

The federal government already gives money to college students in the form of Pell Grants. The student decides which college he or she wants to go to, not the government. 

The same is true with the GI Bill. The veteran decides which school he wants to give his scholarship money to, not the government.

Taxpayer-funded pre-K programs such as Head Start follow the same model. Parents decide—not the government—which pre-school they want their child to attend. 

We don’t force low-income families to spend their food stamp dollars at government-run grocery stores. They can go anywhere they want: Walmart, Target, Safeway, or any other similar store. 

The time has come to apply the same logic to K through 12 education. It’s hard to believe that we haven’t done it before now.  

Fund the children, not the schools. 

The money is there. 

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that public schools spent about $16,000 per student in 2019. For some perspective, data from Private School Review shows that the average private school tuition is about $12,000 per student each year.

So, why is K through 12 education the outlier? As we have seen, in virtually every other area of life, people choose how to spend their money—even when the money comes from the government. 

But for some reason, parents aren’t allowed to decide the best K through 12 school for their children. Choice is the norm for pre-K and higher education. Why not for K through 12?

Well, there is a reason: It threatens a special interest. A very powerful one. 

The teachers’ unions. 

The unions argue that giving educational funds to parents “steals money” from public schools. 

But where did the idea come from that the funding “belongs” to the public schools in the first place?

That’s right: the teachers’ unions. 

The truth is the opposite: public schools “steal” money from families. School choice initiatives just return the money to the hands of the intended beneficiaries of the funding—students and their parents.

Allowing families to choose their grocery store doesn’t “steal” money from Safeway. Allowing families to choose their school doesn’t “steal” money from public schools.

Ironically, the argument by public school advocates that school choice would “defund” public schools is an admission of failure. Given a choice, a vast number of Americans would prefer almost any other school to their local public school.

But right now, there are few options for parents to express that dissatisfaction. Homeschooling is an option, but many parents believe—rightly or wrongly—that they can’t do it. A private school can be another option, but it may not be financially feasible.

This gives the unions tremendous leverage. We saw how they use that leverage during the Covid crisis.

After a school year of lockdowns, most private schools fought to return to in-person learning. The teachers’ unions did the opposite: they fought to stay out of the classroom.  

If parents had the power to say, “Bye-bye, I’m taking my child’s education dollars elsewhere,” the situation would have been much different. The teachers’ unions know this, which is why they scream bloody murder every time the word “choice” is even mentioned.

Here’s the irony—you might even say tragedy. When faced with competition, public schools do, in fact, up their game. 

Twenty-five of 27 studies—and the latest peer-reviewed meta-analysis on the topic—find that private school choice competition leads to better outcomes in public schools. 

For example, a study published in May 2021 reveals that increased competition from expanding private school choice in Florida improved academic and behavioral outcomes in nearby public schools.

This is not advanced calculus. In every area of life and commerce, competition invariably leads to a better product. Satisfied customers return. Unsatisfied customers do not.

One silver lining of the Covid crisis is that families have seen the light—the light being the need for choice. 

A recent nationwide survey from RealClear Opinion Research found a 10-percentage point jump in support for school choice—from 64% support in April 2020 to 74% in June 2021. It’s worth noting that support increased 11% among Democrats—59% to 70%. 

How many public policy ideas have this level of support?

And here’s one more irony, the teachers’ unions get a big share of the credit. They overplayed their hand. In doing so, they have awakened a sleeping giant: parents.

There’s no turning back now. 

Parents are demanding more. And they deserve more. So do the kids. 

Fund the children, not the schools. 

I’m Corey DeAngelis, national director of research at the American Federation for Children, for Prager University.